STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here is a question we normally would not feel the need to ask at all. We normally would not inquire exactly who would take over a vital job at the Justice Department if the person currently doing that job was fired. But this is not a normal time at the Department of Justice. President Trump has repeatedly criticized Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the work of special counsel Robert Mueller. If Rosenstein should leave, that job would fall to the third in command there, Noel Francisco. He is currently the solicitor general, the Trump administration's chief advocate to the Supreme Court. And NPR's Carrie Johnson has this profile.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Noel Francisco is a member of the conservative legal elite. A clerkship with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 1997 launched his career. A few years later, Francisco was on the way to Florida to work around the clock on one of the biggest cases in the country. His mentor, Chuck Cooper, remembers.
CHUCK COOPER: Oh, yeah. Well, the one that sticks out my mind is Bush v. Gore.
JOHNSON: That election recount case came out, of course, in favor of George W. Bush. Soon Francisco was headed to the White House counsel's office and then the Justice Department. Along the way, he defended the firings of U.S. attorneys during the Bush years, and he wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2016 arguing the FBI treated Hillary Clinton with, quote, "kid gloves." But ask Francisco, and he'll say his story begins with his father. Born in the Philippines in 1935, he struggled during World War II before moving to the U.S. and becoming a doctor.
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NOEL FRANCISCO: He once told me how as a young boy, he was forced to live in the remnants of a bombed-out tank. Whenever I've faced the joys or the difficulties of life, I think of that little boy.
JOHNSON: That was Francisco at a Senate hearing last May, only hours after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Francisco's current job is not without difficulties. He's the solicitor general, the administration's top representative to the Supreme Court. But he's also next in line to supervise special counsel Robert Mueller. That's the man appointed to lead the Russia probe after Comey's dismissal. Longtime friend Senator Ted Cruz of Texas says Francisco is a steady figure.
TED CRUZ: Noel is very even-keeled. He's steady. Nothing rattles him. He's someone you want leading during a crisis.
JOHNSON: Lawyers who have worked with Francisco in the past say they're not sure what he'll do if he's asked to get rid of the special counsel or somehow limit the Russia investigation. In 2007, Francisco told Congress he's not a fan of special prosecutors. He said he'd rather the Justice Department do those investigations itself. Trump ally Chris Christie recently told ABC News that overseeing a huge investigation may not be the best fit.
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CHRIS CHRISTIE: To tell you, Noel Francisco, very talented lawyer - but to be solicitor general, you have a specific skill set, and running Russia collusion investigation is probably not one of them.
JOHNSON: Francisco actually does have experience with high-profile public corruption cases. He's successfully represented former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, ultimately persuading the Supreme Court to throw out his conviction on corruption charges. Now he's appearing before the court as the voice of the Trump administration. At his confirmation hearing, Francisco said he had a responsibility beyond just winning or losing.
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FRANCISCO: After all, the Department of Justice's goal is not just to win but to ensure that justice is served.
JOHNSON: But to lawyers who practice before the court, one thing stands out so far - Francisco's decision to ask the justices to throw out a federal appeals court ruling in favor of an undocumented minor who wanted an abortion. The court filing also suggested the American Civil Liberties Union lawyers representing that girl should face disciplinary charges. The incendiary language in the brief prompted bipartisan outcry. Two sources told NPR people had urged the solicitor general not to file the document. These days, Francisco's friends say he's too busy to make much time for them, but sometimes he manages to show up for friendly poker games. His former law partners say Francisco's an excellent player because, they say, he knows how to read a room. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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